University of Exeter funding: Drivers of methane emissions in tro

Drivers of methane emissions in tropical peatlands, Geography Department – PhD (Funded) Ref: 3922

About the award


Academic Supervisors:

A/Professor Angela Gallego-Sala, University of Exeter, UK
A/Professor Tim Hill, University of Exeter, UK
Professor Sue Page, University of Leicester, UK
Dr Jenny Farmer, University of Newcastle, UK
Professor Xavier Comas, Florida Atlantic University, US


The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences, is inviting applications for a PhD studentship funded by the European Research Council (ERC) to work on the Consolidator project entitled Tropical Peatlands and the Carbon Cycle (TroPeaCC) to commence in February 2021 or as soon as possible thereafter. You will be part of a multi-disciplinary European funded project, TroPeaCC aiming to provide a step-change gain in our understanding of tropical peatland functioning and in understanding the likely response of peatland ecosystems to climate change. The proposed supervisory team is composed of leaders in the field with complementary expertise.

The studentship will cover UK/EU/International tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 3.5 years.  The student would be based in Geography in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Project Description:

Tropical peatlands are the most carbon-dense ecosystems in the world and they store the equivalent of ~10 years of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions in their soils. Despite their importance, crucial questions remain about carbon cycling in tropical peatlands and improving understanding is critical as they are at high risk from both climate change and land use change. Protection and improved management of tropical peatlands can also play an important role in meeting the greenhouse gas emissions targets set out under the Paris Agreement.

Under intact conditions tropical peatlands sequester carbon in their soils, but also emit methane through methane producing micro-organisms present in the waterlogged conditions. With the impacts of land use change, these dynamics shift. While tropical peatland research has primarily focused on carbon dioxide losses from drainage affected peatlands, there is a considerable gap in the knowledge around peatland based methane dynamics, including the environmental drivers of emissions and the effect on radiative forcing from these systems. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2 and, in order to understand the radiative forcing of peatland ecosystems, we need to measure methane emissions. The tropics are thought to be responsible for more than half of the global emissions of methane (Bloom et al., 2010). However, methane emission measurements on the ground in tropical areas remain sparse and this is a stumbling block for modelling efforts, which cannot be well calibrated nor evaluated without a sufficient number of ground-based observations (Ciais et al., 2013 and references within). If we wish to understand current and future tropical methane emissions, then ground observations of methane across the tropics are essential as this is still a crucial gap in our scientific knowledge.

The main research questions that the project aims to answer are: 1. What are the key environmental drivers behind methane flux dynamics in tropical peatlands? 2. Do these vary on an inter-continental scale? 3. What is the current rate of methane emissions from the study peatlands?

During this PhD project, you will use two different techniques to capture the controls of methane production and release in tropical peatlands.

1. In order to capture methane that is emitted through the peat column, TroPeaCC will make instantaneous measurements of methane using a portable gas flux analyser and a static closed chamber set on the ground (Winton et al., 2017). In addition, in those sites where trees are the dominant plant type, and there is no access to an eddy covariance tower, a static chamber method specifically adapted to measure methane stemming from tree trunks will be used (Pangala et al., 2013 and references within). At all sites additional measurements will be made on environmental variables such as water table, soil and air temperature and key soil properties.

2. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) in transmission mode (one-way travel time from transmitter to receiver antenna with soil in between the two) (Comas et al., 2013)  will additionally be used to make measurements in the laboratory in order to measure travel time and infer spatial variability in methane gas accumulation and release over peat monoliths taken from the study sites. We will aim to collect one monolith from each of the sites where possible, i.e. six monoliths overall, will be collected and returned to the laboratory, where they will be monitored for biogenic gas production under controlled conditions of temperature and moisture in order to understand methane production potential.

These two techniques will be deployed in a total of 6 sites divided into three different regions in the tropics (South America, Central Africa and South East Asia). The data collected in of this PhD project will serve to provide input and evaluation data for the modelling component of the larger TroPeaCC project.

During your PhD, you will gain practical experience of doing work both in the field and in the laboratory, as well developing high-level data analysis skills. You will also be supported in writing the results of your research in high impact journals. You will be provided with dedicated office space and will be able to access state-of-the-art laboratory and high performance computing facilities.  Specific training and support will be available for all components of the project, including field and laboratory working, and data analysis. In the field, you will have the opportunity to work with teams of local and UK scientists to facilitate field logistics. These collaborations will provide you with the opportunity to engage with and understand a wider range.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 865403).


Bloom, A. A., Palmer, P.I., Fraser, A., Reay, D.S. and Frankenberg C. Large-scale controls of methanogenesis inferred from methane and gravity spaceborne data. Science, 327, 322–325 (2010).

Ciais, P., Sabine, C., Bala, G., Bopp, L., Brovkin, V., Canadell, J., Chhabra, A., DeFries, R., Galloway, J., Heimann, M., Jones, C., Le Quéré, C., Myneni, R. B., Piao, S., and Thornton, P. Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles, in Stocker, T. F., Qin, D., Plattner, G.-K., Tignor, M., Allen, S. K., Boschung, J., Nauels, A., Xia, Y., Bex, V., and Midgley, P. M., eds., Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, Cambridge University Press, p. 465–570 (2013).

Comas, X., Kettridge, N., Binley, A., Slater, L., Parsekian, A., Baird, A.J., Strack, M., Waddington, J.M. The effect of peat structure on the spatial distribution of biogenic gases within bogs. Hydrological Processes, 28, 5483–5494 (2013).

Pangala, S. R., Moore, S., Hornibrook, E.R.C. and Gauci, V. Trees are major conduits for methane egress from tropical forested wetlands. New Phytologist, 19(7), 524–531 (2013).

Winton R.S., Flanagan N., Richardson C.J. Neotropical peatland methane emissions along a vegetation and biogeochemical gradient. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0187019 (2017).

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology, such as environmental science, microbiology, biological sciences, chemistry or physics. 

We welcome applications from minority groups and female scientists in line with the Athena Swan charter.

Applicants must be willing to travel and do field work in remote locations in the tropics for extended periods of time. As this is an important component in this project, there would be potential challenges with mobility to remote field locations. As a way of mitigating this, if the applicant could not travel, the analysis could be completed based on field cores/data collected by other TroPeaCC staff and students.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5  in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 
• CV
• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
• Research proposal – a short research proposal (1000 words) including a short literature review, research questions and hypothesis based on the literature and expanding the project advert here.
• Names of two referees familiar with your academic work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 31 August 2020.  Interviews will be held via Teams in mid-September 2020.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone: 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) or +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers).  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor


Application deadline:31st August 2020
Value:£15,285 per annum
Duration of award:per year
Contact: STEMM PGR Admissions